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03 July 2007

Life at Google from an outside perspective

We continue our unbridled fascination with Google as one of the major players in the new information industries (of which we strongly believe have actually now grown to encompass the intelligence community itself – and in fact, are in danger of rendering much of the community’s traditional activities irrelevant, but that’s another discussion.)

The search engine for years was the intelligence community’s secret weapon in managing the vast volumes of raw information that was generated by Cold War collection activities. Massive early investments were made in cataloging and retrieval software – primitive by today’s standards, revolutionary then… but Google isn’t just another search engine, in our opinion. It is an enterprise structure driven by the interplay of information, communication, and intentions. The manner in which it choose to structure itself, to envision its own activities, and to propagate its activities are interesting not only as an example of how such an operation may be accomplished but also in how an intelligence community driven by the same imperatives might have been shaped given a blank slate. We view Google as a looking glass to imperfectly glimpse a part of the future intelligence community.

Thus we note with great interest a new item, which if it were a national level service we were discussing, would probably qualify as a defector’s reporting – a recently resigned Google employee’s perspective on life at the ‘plex, written for his seniors at Microsoft. While the corporate world is by no means so harsh, we do find the tension of competitive forces interesting to observe in its own right.

But more importantly, we see in this account a number of things the community might do well to adopt itself. While the defector (er, former employee) highlights many of these as perceived weaknesses, by any means they are a definite step up from the typical vault dweller’s life.

It is simply inspiring to think of an intelligence agency transformed along such lines. How much easier would we find recruitment and retention if we could offer:

  • A private MD-VA-DC area bus/van service for IC employees and contractors and not just the inter-building or metro shuttle, but an actual regional transport network)?
  • A “tech stop” on each floor, with immediate repair and re-issue authority, and the ability to get networks immediately up and running for people transferring into a building?
  • An “SSO stop”, modeled along the same lines, to help facilitate clearance transfers, meeting requests, and to act as an interface with investigation and adjudication processes for a team’s new hires and contractors on behalf of the team’s management?
  • A chance for line level workers to do the kind of intel they want to do (versus the latest crisis they have been thrown into), at least part of the time? Or to contribute to the literature of intelligence? (Modeled along Google’s 20% time.)
  • An environment that didn’t demand even the most junior level staff attempt to dress like they are going before congress every day? And in which those seniors (and junior briefers) which did have to dress well for external reasons could take advantage of laundry / dry cleaning services?
In short, the focus on the complete care and feeding of the line level worker is not only a model we have seen at Google, but also out in expeditionary environments. Small investments reap great rewards in relieving individual employees of the burdens of normal life (which are added exponentially onto the unusual nature of the community’s demands), allowing them to focus on the core business of doing real intel.

If this seems alien to the business of government, it seems natural that the IC would contract out these non-essential functions. And it just might save them the loss of the better and brighter among their new hires (and the related real dollar loss, clearance system burden, etc.) as they go contractor – or get out entirely.

We will address the other points regarding career progression, management structure, and other operational-level issues at another time, we think. Suffice to say even Google may not have all the answers when it comes to the other extremely difficult challenges of HR and functional management. But one must always take a defector’s statements with a grain of salt, especially as we are not certain of the individual’s history, reliability, nor current motivations given the unknown audience for which he was writing….

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